The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” has emerged from the musical frenzy of the 1960’s as one of the era’s most enduring singles. Although it enjoyed worldwide success upon its initial release, there was nothing about its chart position to suggest it was anything more than one of the flash-in-the-pan hits being churned out by the Motown musical machine. Yet it’s this song that launched Michael Jackson’s nascent superstardom; this song that was revived as the cornerstone of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack that topped the Billboard 200 for 11 weeks straight; this song that has been called “arguably the greatest pop record of all time and certainly the fastest man-made route to pure joy”. But I believe it’s more than “possibly the best chord progression in history” that has led to the song’s universal acclaim and continuing relevance. It’s the conspicuously hidden contradiction between young Michael’s innocent vocals and the abjectly sorrowful lyrics, powered by the saccharine jaunt of that beautiful chord progression that makes “I Want You Back” a deceptively complex song, fresh despite its age.
The first 30 seconds of “I Want You Back” are about the happiest, most invigoratingly danceable moments in music. From the first piano slide that introduces the famous bass-happy chord sequence to the indulgent second piano slide that introduced Michael’s effortlessly talented voice to the general public, one can’t help but grin and shimmy to the infectious beat. The lyrics of the song are an afterthought among the excellence dazzling all around it. Why listen closely to Michael’s words when you can listen to his voice?
But under the impossibly happy dance of the music, the lyrics paint a different story. A closer listen reveals phrases like “Tryin’ to live without your love / is one long sleepless night” and “Every street you walk on / I leave tear stains on the ground”. Viewed in a vacuum, the lyrics are a desperate plea, begging the darling in the song to “let me live again”.
So there is a clear dissonance between the music and the lyrics in the song. But the complexity goes much deeper than that. Keep in mind that the lyrics were written by adults. Adults who have surely experienced love as a dominating force that can create and destroy, nourish and wound. So another level of dissonance seems to crop up, then, in Michael Jackson’s innocent, 11 year old delivery of these very adult feelings. The song should come across as inauthentic, a flailing attempt by a child to grasp at feelings he can’t understand. But it doesn’t. No one is accusing the song of being factitious. And the reason why is the same reason the whole song works so beautifully. It’s because Michael truly believes in the childhood version of love he’s singing about, not the destructive, adult kind the lyrics write about.
If the song sounds impossibly happy, that’s because it is. Michael’s eternally optimistic yelping transports the listener back to a time in their life when love was easy. When love was as simple and joyous as holding hands on the playground. The song is perfectly authentic because of how exuberantly, totally, Michael seems to think the song will work to get his lover back; listen to the yowling “Oh!”’s and “Ha!”’s of confident bliss in the final moments of the song. To Michael, “I Want You Back” is the Band-Aid for a skinned knee, or the reconciliatory candy bar needed to make everything right again. He’ll get his darling back simply because he wants her back. There is no other possible outcome.
In this subtle, subversive way, the lyrics and the ludicrously happy tone of the song are actually perfectly matched as a result of young Michael Jackson’s repurposing of the lyrics into an ode to idyllic, childlike love. The effective interplay between innocence and experience on “I Want You Back” is far from new. It echoes a strong literary tradition beginning with William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. Blake’s collection of Songs of Innocence, followed years later by Songs of Experience, showed, as he put it, “the two contrary states of the human soul”. Taken together, the collections of poetry are a powerful treatise on the loss of innocence in the face of harsh reality. And that’s what “I Want You Back” achieves – but in reverse. It turns the clock back from experience to innocence. And that magical transformation is what has kept the song in the public consciousness for so long, and what will continue to keep it there.
“Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary is another song that deftly navigates the space between innocence and experience. Buoyed by the gentle lullaby of quiet strings, the song cloaks itself in the guise of a nursery rhyme. Contrary to the popular myth, “Puff the Magic Dragon” is most certainly not about marijuana. It is a touching tale personifying a dragon-shaped kite that has been outgrown by little Jackie Paper. The lyrics describe the happy-go-lucky duo’s adventures, but the final stanzas take a depressing turn: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys / …Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave / So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave”. The following chorus is muted and mournful, nearly whispered in respect for the metaphorical death of Puff and Jackie’s long-held friendship. But the chorus is immediately sung again, this time rising in proud remembrance of the imagination that gave Puff life. Through their surprisingly sorrowful ending, Peter, Paul and Mary chronicle the more natural transition from innocence to experience in “Puff the Magic Dragon”.
These songs that deftly handle the balance between innocence and experience will always strike a poignant chord in an audience that has grown up and experienced the trials and tribulations of adult life in an uncertain world – an audience that is intimately familiar with the seamless transition from childhood to adulthood, and the impossibility of making the opposite journey. The rare song that can authentically recapture the innocent exuberant joy of childhood, even for a fleeting musical moment, is a song that will continually remain entrenched in the musical canon. Sometimes, we all need to feel like a kid again.